So, now we know. Tony Blair isn’t going, according to the Times on Friday. Oh yes he is, according to the Guardian on the same day. The PM has decided that it would be destabilising to give a timetable for his departure says one news outlet. But he has agreed to go next summer say the others - he just doesn’t want to make a fuss about it.
Tony Blair’s long good-bye is turning into a thundering bore. It is the most tedious story in British politics, yet it remains the only story in British politics. It drives the public mad hearing about his latest prevarication's; it drives hacks bonkers having to write about it.
I mean, how long can we go on alternating headlines about Tony going with headlines about Tony staying? We are caught in a loop - condemned to self-contradiction as every new briefing or interview reverses the previous one. But the trouble is, the entire political system is caught in this loop paralysed by the Prime Minister’s indecision. Nothing can get moving again until he goes.
In his round of pre-conference interviews Blair was playing the old tune about there being so much left to do. “Revolutionary” reforms in the health service, the war on terrorism, antisocial behaviour. But in the clearest sign et that Blair has been afflicted by mad-Prime Minister disease, he announced that he is going to tackle antisocial behaviour where it starts: in the womb.
Teenage mothers could be forced to accept state help before their children are born in order to prevent their progeny becoming a “menace to society a few years down the line” as the PM put it. If they don’t, they could lose benefits or have their children taken into care.
It isn’t clear exactly what kind of ante-natal intervention he has in mind. Perhaps they could be obliged to listen to improving recordings of the Prime Minister’s speeches on respect and community, much as middle class mothers used to play Beethoven to their unborn. Perhaps the intervention could be sterner than that. After all, if we know these children are going to be a threat to society and themselves, as the Prime Minister insists, why let them be born at all?
Of course, Tony Blair isn’t going to turn to eugenics - at least we hope not. But the idea of foetal interventionism is so Orwellian it seems astonishing that he or his advisers could have thought it was a sensible initiative to highlight at the start of a crucial parliamentary session. The idea was immediately dubbed the FASBOs - Foetal Anti Social Behaviour Orders.
Do Labour seriously believe that this rubbish is going to do them any good? The focus on crime may chime with public concern, but it also reminds people that crime is still a serious problem nine years after Labour came to power. Law and order initiatives represent a kind of anti-spin - they actually divert attention from the fact that, overall, crime is actually down in Britain.
As for the “revolutions” in public provision, I don’t know if the PM has looked recently, but things aren’t going well south of the border. PFI is becoming a national scandal as further evidence emerges - as in the recent Channell 4 “Dispatches: Public Service, Private Profit” - of the way PFI projects have been hi-jacked by sharp-witted financiers. Wards are being closed and operations cancelled as hospitals come to terms with their billion pound deficit. The six billion pound national computer system, which was supposed to make a reality of patient choice, is a disaster area with suggestions that it may end up costing over twenty billion. Many doctors still believe the new system will not work
The near impossibility of selling the PM’s modernising reforms suggests he will fall back on the war on terror to rekindle public passion for his leadership. We are promised a raft of new measures to make us safer and deal with the greatest threat “since the Second World War” as the Home Secretary John Reid put it. Expect 90 day detention to figure prominently in the forthcoming Westminster agenda.
But again, I think we have been here once too often. It isn’t so easy to scare people with the power of nightmares now that they’ve been living with them for five years. People have had time to consider the nature of the terrorist threat, and the likely impact on their lives There is clearly a threat from Islamist extremism in Britain, but the threat is thankfully a limited one.
We know what the terrorists can do - we saw it in London a year ago. But the phlegmatic British people brushed it off - as well they might since more people were killed on British roads that day than were destroyed by the bombers. The devastation caused by al Qaeda is very much less extensive than that caused by the IRA in the Seventies.
We are manifestly not facing a world war. There is no Muslim invasion force preparing to storm the English Channell. Moreover, people are increasingly coming to recognise, as opinion polls have demonstrated over the summer, that the government’s own policies in the Middle East have fuelled the threat.
Whenever the PM opens his mouth, he reminds the British voters of the reasons they don’t want him around any more. Or his 3,200 spin doctors and consultants. There is another agenda for Labour but it lies, for the time being, in the Chancellor’s head. Brownites hope that he has great things up his sleeve, comparable to Bank of England independence, to jump start his administration. Perhaps a reform of the Lords, a mass house-building programme, rebuilding the railways. But the truth is that no one really knows what is going on in Gordon’s skull. His silence is as conspicuous as ever.
The Chancellor is avoiding any public endorsement of Blair’s latest ‘come back’ programme, presumably as a mute commentary on what he thinks of it. Some believe he is keeping quiet about his own plans in case Tony Blair steals them, as he did the pension reforms. But Brown will have to break his silence at the Labour party conference later this month. He will have to give some idea of what the country, and the party, can expect under his leadership. At the very least he has to give some hope that there IS an alternative to Blair, and that Trident replacement and nuclear power isn’t the sum total of his vision. For the real nightmare in Downing St is the possibility that the Chancellor doesn’t really have any alternatives. That he will just continue with the same old neo-liberal economic policies, the flexible labour market, PFI (which he strongly supports), and ever more complex schemes of personal taxation.
The speculation has been going on so long now that it will almost certainly be an anticlimax when Brown does finally get the keys to Number Ten. Perhaps this is what Tony Blari intended. It’s only human to hope that your successor doesn’t outshine you. Has all the delay been designed to create a climate of uncertainty and speculation which will diminish Gordon Brown?
We know that Blairites want to lock him into “modernising” policies which allow Tony Blair to continue his rule after he’s gone. Do they also want us to get bored by Brown even before he’s in the door? Either way, Labour are now staring at electoral defeat as a result of this interminable succession crisis. And the rest of us are being driven quietly mad.